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Analysis: New US senator no guarantee to Democrats

Analysis: New US senator no guarantee to Democrats

Al Franken's victory in the marathon race to elect Minnesota's second senator gives Democrats control of 60 seats, the number needed to overcome any Republican delaying tactic aimed at blocking elements of President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda.
But numbers are not the same as votes in the Senate. And to enact administration priorities on health care, energy and other issues, Democrats will have to remain as united in support of legislation as Republicans are in opposition, no easy task in an institution where lawmakers weigh regional concerns, ideology and narrow political self-interest as well as party loyalty.
The delaying tactic, called a filibuster, requires three-fifths of the Senate to close debate and bring legislation to a vote. The Senate has 100 members, meaning 60 are required to stop a filibuster.
"At 60, every member has a veto," says Eric Ueland, who was chief of staff to former Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist. Meaning that any of the 60 senators _ 58 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents _ gain added leverage in negotiations with the White House or even their own leaders.
In the current lineup, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can be certain of success only to the extent that he can hold together Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont liberal, and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska conservative, along with 57 other strong-minded, senators of varying views and priorities.
Pragmatically, there are other complications confronting Senate Democrats, in the form of prolonged illnesses of two Senate veterans. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 91, of West Virginia, was released from the hospital Tuesday after treatment for a staph infection, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was operated on more than a year ago for brain cancer.
Neither man has been in the Capitol for weeks, and it is not known when, or even whether, either or both will return. Without them, Democrats can count only 58 votes in their own ranks.
Franken's victory was sealed on Tuesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected former Sen. Norm Coleman's challenge to last fall's election. Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, said he was "thrilled and honored" with the outcome. The loser e-mailed his supporters as he was conceding publicly, a possible step toward a gubernatorial race next year.
"Sen.-elect Franken's presence will not mean that Democrats will just be able to jam through our agenda. Nor does it make it any less critical for Democrats and Republicans to work together," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid.
He added that the Democratic caucus is diverse. "No one's vote is ever automatic, and of course, up until now we have gotten very little to no help from Republicans, who are simply saying no to everything and betting on this president to fail," he said.
Republicans argue the opposite, that Democrats have made little attempt to seek common ground and look only for a small number of converts, as they did in passing the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation last winter.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, warned of the impact of a 60-vote majority when Sen. Arlen Specter, a former Republican, switched parties in April, leaving Democrats with control of 59.
"What this means, if we are not successful in Minnesota, as you know, is that the Democrats, at least on paper, will have 60 votes. I think the danger of that for the country is that there won't automatically be an ability to restrain the excess that is typically associated with big majorities and single-party rule," he said.
"So I think the threat to the country presented by this defection really relates to the issue of whether or not in the United States of America our people want the majority to have whatever it wants without restraint, without a check or a balance."
If that sounds like a theme for the 2010 congressional campaign, so be it.
In fact, to the extent that individual Democrats believe they will be judged at the polls in 2010 on how well they can govern, the 60th vote is of significant advantage. But to the extent that any one of them fear being attacked as the deciding vote for legislation that is intensely controversial _ a health care bill that taxes some medical benefits, for example, or an energy bill that Republicans allege includes a new tax on consumers _ it will be anything but that.
An early test may come next month, when Democrats hope to have health care legislation on the floor of the Senate. Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been seeking agreement on a bipartisan plan with a handful of Republicans. If those talks falter, Democrats may need 60 votes to advance one of the administration's highest priorities.
Which may explain why the White House said in a statement on Tuesday that Obama looks "forward to working with Senator-elect Franken to build a new foundation for growth and prosperity by lowering health care costs and investing in the kind of clean energy jobs and industries that will help America lead in the 21st century."
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.


Updated : 2021-05-06 16:04 GMT+08:00